Work like you don't need the money. Love like you've never been hurt. Dance like nobody's watching.
~Satchel Paige

Generative Questions (Part-1) – Harish Raichandani

Over last few years my fascination with Appreciative Inquiry has grown. This practical philosophy propels individuals, couples, families, teams and organizations onto a plane where, one discovers flourishing relationships and generative growth.  During these years — the AI programs I attended, the large number of stories that I heard & read and the work I did – have impacted me significantly. This strength based philosophy is so addictive that today – I cannot think of my personal & professional being without the frame of AI.

Whether it is parenting issues in dealing with my teenage sons, or interactions with the large extended Raichandani family, or the nascent organization which we run, or the clients we work with – I experience the profound impact of this Cooperrider and Srivastava invented approach.

The core of this approach includes :

  • The act of exploration and discovery > The discovery carried out through questions. Today there’s enough research to prove that the consequences are embedded in those very questions.  This very simple technique has made AI, perhaps the most sought after OD & Individual development tool.

In this short paper I have attempted to give examples of situations where the very act of inquiry carried out from the AI perspective resulted in desired consequences; the affect & emotions brought about by these questions become generative i.e. these questions produce positive emotions, bring about hope, prompt pro-activeness, stimulate initiative broaden the horizon of possibilities and so on.

Let us consider the following four situations:

  1. My phone company has, yet again sent me the faulty bill. Over half a dozen attempts made in past several weeks appear to be falling on deaf ears. I pick up phone dial the famous ‘121’ to lodge yet another complaint – after punching several clicks and subjected to unwanted barrage of taped-message-torture, finally a Customer Service Representative appears on line only to ask more questions  the so called ‘confirmations of identity’ and after seeking permission using the ‘polite parliamentary language’, I am put on ‘hold’ to listen to the telecom service provider’s jingle, in which I am least interested.Just imagine what I would be experiencing. Before we proceed further to read this article, I invite the reader to take stock of herself/ himself – what emotions run through your body (as you read this in here & now).  Perhaps, your emotions are same/ closer to what I experienced viz. despair, frustration, anger, sadness, disgust etc.Getting back to the incident, I shout my frustration loudly to this phone company representative, lodge a complaint and angrily disconnect my mobile; engulfed with these emotions I reach home and my son approaches me to share an exciting experience from school. It takes quite a bit of effort for him to reach out to me. My listening skills in those moments are poorer, energy levels lower, and I am unduly tired.On another occasion, I go through the same cycle – faulty bill à call centre interaction à draining emotions; sitting in a car thanks to the peak-hour Hyderabad traffic, I have time to reflect, as the driver is crawling by the side of fly-over under construction. I check my emotions and ask myself a few questions – and wow! the questions lead me to answers which lift up my energy level, generate compassion for the guy who was recipient of my anger (a while ago), I am amused at the ‘call centre à tape-recorded message à delay à hold’ cycle, I’m eagerly awaiting the meeting with a client (due in next half hour) – I am charged up.

    What was the nature of questions I asked myself to bring about that emotional shift?

  2. A junior colleague’s performance has been the cause of disturbance for a Consultant. Nth time he has failed to keep his promise of completing a simple documentation. A very intelligent person, he understands the required work to be done; he is quite competent and the Consultant ensured that his work-load does not hinder completion of required documentation. The past few interactions have rather ended on a bitter note. Typically the sequence has been – the Consultant questions junior’s priorities & commitment àjunior gets defensive à offers new-timeline à the Consultant reminds him of earlier missed timelines – leading rather to an unpleasant conclusion of dialogue.  Another occasion the Consultant asks a set of questions which result in their discussion rising to a higher plane.  This time their discussion leads them to
    • look afresh at importance of documentation for their business
    • the wow-experience it may generate for their client
    • possibility of next similar assignment being richer even while optimizing the effort

    No prizes for guessing, which of the two scenarios may lead to the quality documentation being completed. Again, point for reflection is – what was the nature of questions that lead to this transformation?

  3. I am facilitating a group of Automation Engineers articulate the competencies they require for the ambitious four-fold growth envisaged by a power generating company. The group is involved in deeply engaging, animated discussions. The objective of brain-storming is to arrive at a ‘Competency Frame-work’ which will be helpful in scaling up capability of Automation department. Mid-way through the discussion there’s impasse. The group appears to be stuck with multiple, seemingly contrarian views held dearly by different members.  During the intervening coffee-break members of the group in dyads and triads are animatedly discussing with each other; part concern, part anxiety, I eavesdrop those conversations
    • X doesn’t support your idea of including ‘Protection Systems’ in the list of competencies ‘coz he is worried about his own competence on that dimension
    • Y didn’t want ‘Quality Systems’ being in the list ‘coz that would put Z in an advantageous position vis-à-vis Y

    Essentially these discussions of zero-sum thought-process were quite a drain; frustration written all over participant faces.

    Once we assembled back to continue the workshop, few questions raised by an engineer led to a collaborative dialogue, big-picture view embraced by all and the net result was high interest level of participants, contentment and pride in the output they generated.

    One may like to examine the type of questions raised by that young engineer?

  4. One of my current assignments includes facilitating to set up a community school. The ongoing building construction, approaching academic year timelines, budgetary consideration, the small size of group (including volunteers who are otherwise busy professionals) and ambition to create a benchmark institution have all lead to many exciting and frustrating moments. The core group selected to run the school bring rich academic/ instructional experience; they possess no prior experience of laying foundation of an institution or of executing a project, often their efforts result in shortfall in required/ anticipated accomplishment leading to frustrating situations.

A closer observation of highs and lows of this group reveals that certain type of discussions/ dialogue and specific range of questions lift up their energy levels while others drain.

In all the above situations described above and our day to day encounters in personal & professional life, I have experienced certain type of dialoguing and questioning leads to generative energy; consequently leading to behaviors such as collaboration, belonging & togetherness, patience, understanding, playfulness, etc.

The questions one asks often lead to the consequences (we explore this further in next part). As one begins to practice AI one tends to contribute more of such questions; one tends to trigger more such conversations. These are examples of  “Generative Questions”. In the next part of this article we will explore examples of generative questions. In the meanwhile, may I invite you consciously take note of your moments of positive emotions which may be characterized by joy, interest, contentment, love, pride, awe, hope, amusement, compassion, gratitude, sexual desire etc.

Do reflect and write to us about the questions and dialogues which lead to positive emotions for you. Look forward to you sharing…

”Some doors open only from the inside”
– a Sufi saying

This article was published in ISABS journal “Here & Now” April 2008 issue.

References and Resources:
  • Appreciative Inquiry: A Transformative Paradigm – an article by Jane Magruder Watkins and David Cooperrider • OD Practitioner, 32(1), 6-12.
  • The Role of Positive Emotions in Positive Psychology – The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions – by Barbara L. Fredrickson, (Dept of Psychology, University of Michigan) • March 2001 • American Psychologist
  • Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing – by Barbara L. Fredrickson, (Dept of Psychology, University of Michigan) • Oct 2005 • American Psychologist
  • Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination (Paperback) – by Jane Magruder Watkins  and Bernard J. Mohr  • Jossey-Bass/ Pfeiffer
  • Appreciative Inquiry for Employee Engagement: Humata, Hukhta, Hvarshta – by Tom Osborn and Harish Raichandani, (A case article based on client work in India, unpublished  as yet)